SPORTS POLITICS--That’s béisbol. In English or Spanish, that’s baseball, the hallowed institution that serves to remind us of the way we were in those innocent days when George Halas’ Chicago Bears were the Decatur Staleys, named after the local corn-processing magnate in the little Illinois town, population 43,818.
Times have changed in sports and life, but the brawl between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays suggests how slowly change happens in our national pastime.
Underlying the feud between the teams was a bat flip by Toronto’s Jose Bautista after his three-run homer in the deciding Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division series, a grandiloquent gesture—more so because it was in the postseason on national TV—that was either iconic or will live forever in baseball infamy.
Underlying that is the ongoing and only occasionally acknowledged rift between U.S. and Latino players.
This brawl started between two Latinos only because Rougned Odor, a Venezuelan, was in the path of Bautista, a Dominican, who was hit by a pitch likely ordered up by Texas manager Jeff Bannister, who waited until Bautista’s last at-bat in the teams’ last regular season meeting to get even for last fall’s bat flip.
The bad feelings with the longstanding Latino-Anglo divide, however, go a lot further back than last fall.
Baseball takes great pride in its history of integration. After decades of being for whites only, the league now presents itself as a social pioneer with an annual Jackie Robinson Day in which everyone dons his No. 42.
Meanwhile, baseball takes little or no cognizance of its current problem.
The problem isn’t that Latinos are being barred. On the contrary, with most Latinos signed outside the draft process, giving the game a steady stream of cheap, dirt-poor, hungry, blue-chip prospects, there are more of them—29 percent of the major league players in 2016.
Acceptance is something else. Latinos are living in a time like African-Americans did in the 1950s and 1960s—after Robinson’s arrival, but before everyone realized there was no other way—and the Red Sox became the last to integrate, with infielder Pumpsie Green in 1959.
What’s in people’s hearts changes at its own pace, and in baseball, it’s a slow one.
Robinson retired in 1956 after the Dodgers, who had been praised as liberal pioneers, traded him to their archrival, the Giants.
Viable as Robinson was commercially—he was hired as a vice president by Chock full o’Nuts—he had no place in baseball until becoming a part-time Montreal Expos broadcaster in 1972.
You can argue whether the divide between U.S. and Latino players is racial or cultural, but there’s no doubt that it’s there.
As chronicled by Matt McCarthy, a pitcher in the Angels system, in his 2009 book, “Odd Man Out,” Latinos dominated on the field and went their own way off it.
“Separate but equal,” was how [teammate] Blake Allen described the team dynamic to me. ... “You’ve got your Dominicans and you’ve got everybody else. You don’t want anything to do with the Dominicans. They’re loud, they have no respect for nobody and for God’s sake, don’t ever go in the shower when they in there.”
The team was in fact divided between the Dominicans (a catchall phrase for Hispanic players) and those of us from the United States. There were a dozen Dominicans on our team from Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama and, yes, the Dominican Republic. And Blake was right. They were loud and didn’t speak English.
Just 17 or 18 years old, many had been snatched out of poverty within the last year and signed to lucrative six-figure contracts. Wearing large smiles, larger gold chains and designer sunglasses, they seemed to be playing life with Monopoly money. ...
“But I tell ya what [Allen told McCarthy], in every goddamn town we go to this year, the Dominicans will have fat white girls waiting for them.”
Anonymous as McCarthy was—his 2002 season in Provo, Utah, was his only one in organized professional baseball, after which he graduated from Harvard Medical School—his story was too nitty-gritty to go down easily with the powers that be.
The New York Times noted McCarthy’s manifold errors of fact, noting that he quotes “people stating incorrect facts about their own lives and tells detailed (and mostly unflattering) stories about teammates who were in fact not on his team at the time.”
The Times went on to ask the publisher, Viking Press, and Sports Illustrated, which ran an excerpt, about its fact-checking lapses.
Nevertheless, as far as the big picture—the disturbing accounts of prejudice—is concerned, the Times article didn’t deal with McCarthy’s credibility or lack thereof.
Actually, the Anglo-Latino divide McCarthy cited dovetails with other accounts.
In a 2014 piece for Bleacher Report, Dirk Hayhurst, who pitched briefly in the majors and was hired as an in-house correspondent by the Blue Jays, quoted an elderly scout, noting, “This team has too many Latinos on it to win. Get too many of them together on a club and they take over.”
You could have heard that one about Latinos in baseball 50 years before.
In 1960, Look Magazine did a cover story about the Giants, the Blue Jays of their day with all their African-American (Willie Mays, Willie McCovey) and Latino (Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou, Matty Alou) stars. The handsome Cepeda, known as the Baby Bull, was on the cover, naked from the waist up.
The story, however, was anything but a puff piece. In it, manager Alvin Dark said Cepeda wasn’t the team player that Mays was, claiming Harvey Kuenn and Jim Davenport were more important to the team than Cepeda was.
The deeply religious Dark once stated that God didn’t create everyone equal, insisting that He “gave every race and ethnic group special attributes.”
No manager would dare say such things now. But it’s not necessarily progress, just political correctness.
A 2015 USA Today study showed that 87 percent of the bench-clearing brawls of the previous five seasons started between players of different ethnic backgrounds. Of those, Anglo-Latino square-offs accounted for 66 percent.
Bud Norris, a Padres pitcher—and an Anglo—told USA Today’s Jorge Ortiz that the numbers weren’t coincidental.
“This is America’s game,” Norris said. “This is America’s pastime, and over the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen a very big world influence in this game, which we as a union and as players appreciate. We’re opening this game to everyone that can play. However, if you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years, and I think sometimes that can be misconstrued. There are some players that have antics, that have done things over the years that we don’t necessarily agree with.
“I understand you want to say it’s a cultural thing or an upbringing thing. But by the time you get to the big leagues, you better have a pretty good understanding of what this league is and how long it’s been around.”
If this fire has smoldered for decades, Bautista’s bat flip was like hooking up a gasoline pipeline to it.
Hidebound intolerance came out of the shadows in reaction, taking the form of a defense of the game’s cultural norms.
“Bautista is a f—-ing disgrace to the game,” Goose Gossage, the ’80s reliever with the menacing Fu Manchu moustache, told ESPN in March at the Yankees’ camp where he was an instructor.
“He’s embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him. Throwing his bat and acting like a fool, like all those guys in Toronto. Yoenis Cespedes [of the Mets], same thing.”
Showing how deep feelings ran, Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, a traditionalist but one a good deal calmer than Gossage, said it showed “flagrant disrespect for the game.”
Gossage, an equal-opportunity hater, also ripped Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred.
“The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it,” said Gossage. “I’ll tell you what has happened, these guys played rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the f—- they went, and they thought they figured the f—-ing game out. They don’t know s—-.”
You may notice there’s a lot of anger in baseball, which asserts itself in defense of The Code, an all-but-biblical summary of what a player can’t do without “Disrespecting the Game,” and what happens if he does.
To encapsulate it:
If you’re winning by a lot, you had better not do anything to upset the other team, like stealing a base or even taking too big a swing, let alone getting a big hit in a close game and making the opponent feel even worse by celebrating the wrong way.
The whole thing is a joke. Everyone talks as if Moses came down from Mount Sinai with The Code engraved on stone tablets.
Unfortunately, no two teams can agree on what The Code is from day to day, leading to beaucoup disagreements in the form of brawls, beanballs, near beanballs, takeout slides, et al.
Players don’t talk about a code in the National Football League and the National Hockey League, which are more violent, or the National Basketball Association, where huge players could do major damage to each other if so inclined.
NBA players used to brawl, but do so no longer, barred by then-commissioner David Stern after the 2004 Auburn Hills riot. As much as fans in all sports like a little discreet violence, the NBA has gotten on nicely without it.
If that’s the enlightened approach, baseball differs by 180 degrees.
Bautista’s flip triggered such an outcry, commissioner Manfred was obliged to comment.
Manfred, a graduate of Harvard Law like those other nerds Gossage cited, noted:
“If I were a player I wouldn’t do that. What [Bautista] did did not offend me. It was a very, very exciting moment at a point in time of great excitement for that particular franchise, one that hadn’t been a great team for a long time. You know, it’s one of those moments that happens, and it’s exciting, people liked it, and probably on balance, it’s good for the game.”
Unfortunately for Manfred, there isn’t much he can do, even if he wanted to. The baseball commissioner is the weakest of the four commissioners in the major U.S. leagues. The game has been run at the pleasure of the players’ union since then-commissioner Bud Selig called its bluff and had to cancel the 1994 World Series.
Not that it takes much to touch off a spark among baseball players who tend to be angry and, when crossed, menacing.
Having covered all four major sports, I thought of my time on baseball as sport journalism’s version of Hunter Thompson going out to cover the Hell’s Angels.
Despite their immense size, NFL players are well mannered in comparison, members of a rigidly hierarchical system. NBA players are flashy and a delight, with no problem if rivals show off to their heart’s content. NHL players are as unpretentious as your next-door neighbor.
Happily for baseball, that suggests its problems with Latinos are, indeed, cultural rather than racial. If there were no Latinos in the game, the Anglos would just get mad about something else, as they did when Ty Cobb was honing his spikes long before players of color arrived.
Unhappily for baseball, the rift is deeply cultural, attitudinal and, in the absence of acknowledgment that the game has a problem, not going away.
(Mark Heisler is a former NBA at large reporter for the LA Times and Tribune chain. He blogs at truthdig.com where this article was first posted. Check out TruthDig.com for other writers and thinkers, Robert Scheer, Chris Hedges, Amy Goodman, Bill Boyarsky among them.)